A decade ago, search parties and prospect-sniffing bloodhounds would have been challenged to find true Detroit Tigers catching prospects anywhere on the farmlands.
Strategies soon changed. Alex Avila was taken in June of 2008. James McCann, Bryan Holaday, Rob Brantly, Curt Casali, Shane Zeile, Kade Scivicque, Grayson Greiner, etc., came by way of subsequent drafts.
Two weeks ago, two more catchers were sniped in the first five rounds of Detroit’s 2017 amateur lottery: Joey Morgan and Sam McMillan.
Not as celebrated, or perhaps much noted, was a 14th-rounder from 2016, Austin Athmann, an all-Big Ten catcher from the University of Minnesota who signed following his junior year for basic 14th-round pay: $100,000.
Athmann was stationed last summer at Single A Connecticut and turned a chilly June and July into a torrid August when he batted .356, with an .893 OPS in 19 games.
He followed the pattern this spring at Single A West Michigan. Cool first two months. Scalding June, which has seen him hit .359 in his last 10 games and .377 for the month, with an .840 OPS.
“He’s on fire,” said Mike Rabelo, who once was a Tigers catching prospect who made it to Detroit and who now manages the Whitecaps a year after he was Connecticut’s skipper. “He did this last year, too, He started off really slow and ended up being an All-Star in the New York-Penn League.
“What I noticed early last summer is he did not panic at all, which I thought was pretty unique. Here’s a guy starting his professional career and what you see is that everyone wants to start out hitting 1.000. For a young kid to not panic, that impressed me.”
Athmann is 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, bats right-handed, and grew up in Cold Spring, Minn., ahead of his scholarship days with the Gophers. He was hurt early in his time at Minnesota and never had a full season until 2016, when he batted .374, with 11 home runs, a 1.066 OPS, and helped the Gophers to a Big Ten championship.
Baseball America’s 2016 draft scouting report on Athmann said:
“Until this year, Athmann's talent had been slowed by his injury issues. Athman needed two hip labrum surgeries and a nerve relocation in his elbow that cost him time in his freshman and sophomore seasons. Because of the injuries, Athmann had caught only 16 games in his first two seasons at Minnesota, but once (he) was able to stay healthy for an entire season, his talent emerged.
“ … Athmann has a prototypical catcher's body with a strong trunk. Athmann has long been considered a better backstop than hitter, but this year's he's tapped into his average power and hit for average thanks to excellent timing that begins with an open stance and a significant timing step. Defensively, Athmann handles pitchers well and has an accurate, average arm. If he can stay healthy he has solid upside as a catcher, but his long list of injuries causes some pause.”
Rabelo says health hasn’t been an issue these first two professional seasons. Other challenges remain. Due to those frigid first couple of months, Athmann is batting .273 on the year with an undistinguished .298 on-base percentage (seven walks in 50 games).
But this is “a good fastball hitter,” Rabelo says, noting Athmann could perhaps be more patient and less bent on swinging early in the count.
What he likes, beyond the bat’s development, is Athmann’s work behind home plate.
“He throws out everybody,” said Rabelo, referring to a 50-percent ratio that is sky-high in the catcher’s realm. “A lot of that is because our pitchers are getting the ball to him in the necessary time. We take a lot of pride on that. We don’t want a guy lifting his leg and find that he’s 1.5 (seconds to home plate) every time.
“But you’ve still got to put the ball on the bag on a non-forceout play, which is not easy to do. His arm might be a tick above average, and he’s still working on the receiving end of his game, and on certain pitch-selection. But he’s coming along very well.”
Bruce Fields, the Tigers roving minor-league batting instructor, saw Athmann during a weekend series earlier this month and took his usual array of notes.
“The four games I saw him he was 9-for-15, and every ball he hit was practically on the nose,” Fields said. “And there were some hard outs within those six outs he made.
“He’s locked in, and because he was locked in, he went out of the zone a time or two, all because he felt that good and probably felt he could hit everything, which young hitters can do.
“But I think the more he plays, the more he’ll understand about having that strike-zone discipline and develop his pitch-recognition.”
Fields, spontaneously, offered a follow-up thought.
“You know who he reminds me of? Hicks,” Fields said, referring to Tigers fill-in catcher / first baseman John Hicks. “They even look similar in the box when they stand in there.”
The Tigers understand prospects have their warm and not-so-warm interludes, their good and bad months, their inspiring and, too often, their uncertain seasons when the big leagues can look like more of a dream than a destination.
But they’ll see what happens here. There’s talent and a good pedigree on display in a player’s first full season of professional baseball. It’s worth watching, they assure, and definitely worth a wait.